SBJ/20091108/Technology in Sports


Beyond the suits

The guys on ESPN’s “Sunday Countdown” never have looked quite right playing football in suits. Not even former players Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin or Steve Young have been able to pull it off, no matter how smoothly they moved or how much they spent on their suits.

So now, when former wide receiver turned analyst Cris Carter wants to show how an elite receiver such as Roddy White gains separation from a cornerback by pivoting his shoulders sharply on a cut, he does so while standing between White and the corner — or, at least seeming to stand between video game representations of them, courtesy of the Virtual Playbook, a technological development introduced last year by ESPN in partnership with EA Sports and rolled out with greater frequency this year.

ESPN’s Jackson keeps his suit
clean while virtual players battle.

The graphically generated players allow analysts to use actual uniformed players as props.

“We built Virtual Playbook because we felt internally that having ex-players in suits show you how they’re going to line up and what Peyton Manning was going to see wasn’t really the best way to do it,” said Anthony Bailey, vice president of emerging technology at ESPN. “So, we set out to build a tool. … We’re trying to ensure we’re not making technology just for technology, but actually building teaching tools that help our fans understand the game better.”

ESPN will use similar technology to create holograms of its anchors and their guests, a technique the network unveiled at a media briefing earlier this year. ESPN plans to use the virtual set technology to make it look as if anchors, analysts, reporters and athletes who are in different places during interviews are actually together.

“It’s our way of taking our announcers out of a studio, where there is no action, to a site where there is action,” Bailey said, “or vice versa: taking Kobe [Bryant] out of Staples Center and bringing him into ‘SportsCenter.’"

— Bill King

Getting a jump

The company that brought the virtual first-and-10 line to football and the K-Zone to baseball now has its eyes trained on a wider target: keeping track of the fielders on a baseball diamond.

Sportvision Inc. is working to outfit Major League Baseball parks with graphics systems that will use existing video feeds to log the positioning of fielders and track their movement, along with the movement of the ball. It can use the data to produce TV and online graphics that will monitor often-discussed but rarely quantified aspects of the game, such as the jump a fielder gets on a ball and the distance he covers to get to it.

While baseball long has been the most statistically geared of all major sports, data on defense is relatively thin.

“Once we figure out the insights we’re capturing, the [graphics] that we can produce will follow from that,” said Hank Adams, CEO of Sportvision. “It’s often been said that Cal Ripken wasn’t the flashiest of shortstops, but he made the plays because of how close he was positioned to where the ball ended up. Once we start tracking fielders — tracking every player and every hit ball — we can figure out ways to show that to fans and help them understand the nuances of the game that we know they love.”

Because MLB parks already are outfitted with Sportvision’s Pitch f/x system — tracking equipment that monitors the path and speed of the ball from the pitcher to home plate for use on — the company can position the new technology as an expansion of its existing system. While it will be used to create TV graphics, it also can provide scouting data, meaning the cost — a detail Adams would not discuss — might be spread across users.

“We haven’t sorted out who is going to write the final check,” Adams said.

— Bill King

Touch and show

You won’t see CNN’s Wolf Blitzer diagramming a pick and roll or TNT’s Kenny Smith or NBA TV’s Steve Smith calling election results, but the similarities between the gizmos they use are striking.

Turner and NBA TV are in touch with
touch screens.

Just as Blitzer and his CNN colleagues used a massive touch screen to turn states red and blue to help tell the story of last year’s presidential election, the basketball hosts and analysts on the sports side of the Turner media family are making increased use of the touch screen to make their points in the TNT and NBA TV studios.

“That’s one of the benefits of being part of Turner,” said Bryan Perez, senior vice president of NBA Digital, the partnership between Turner Sports and the NBA. “We get to piggyback on a lot of that. That [CNN’s election coverage] is really where a lot of this was spawned last year.”

The touch screen — provided by Durham, N.C.-based SportsMedia Technology Corp. — gets its most liberal use on NBA TV, where it’s known as TouchPass. Standing beside a video screen, hosts use the touch screen to tap a map that takes viewers to live look-ins. They can also tap the screen to call up stats.

Analysts also can use the TouchPass screen as a telestrator, diagramming plays while standing in front of the screen.

“We think it’s a good look for the fan to be able to see the analyst [diagramming on the screen],” Perez said. “They’re able to provide a little more detail. They draw the lines to communicate precise points, but they can say ‘Look over here, on the baseline,’ and they don’t have to draw a squiggly line.”

— Bill King

Slowing down the game

The producer of the nation’s most-watched weekly sports show, “Sunday Night Football,” says he can count on one hand the truly important advances in technology on the TV sports landscape in the last half century.

“Instant replay was a huge one,” said Fred Gaudelli, who produced “Monday Night Football” at ABC for five years before moving to NBC with the show in 2006. “Then you talk about the ‘yellow line’; the constant clock and scoreboards; super slo-mo should be in there; the telestrator brought a lot to the analyst. That’s five. Five things that are really meaningful out of probably 500,000 that have been tried.

NBC’s “SNF” is advancing super slo-mo.

“The best technology is the technology that has made the game easier to understand and more enjoyable to watch. Period. And there’s not very much that you’re able to identify. It has to fit that really small window. If it fits that, you’ve got a winner.”

Gaudelli points to improvements in the quality and readiness of super slow motion — otherwise known as Xmo — as the most significant technological stride the show has made in the last year.

Xmo takes another step forward this month, with “Sunday Night Football” unveiling the latest upgrade in the high-speed camera involved in the technology. It records action at as high as 1,000 frames per second, compared with 120 frames per second for a standard replay. NFL Network also plans to use the camera in its game telecasts this season.

The pictures likely will remind viewers of the “Ballet” super slo-mo promo spots being featured in NFL ad efforts. The new technology allows the network to turn shots from the camera around quickly enough to use as replays, as well.

“It slows down the footage and enhances the clarity of it so dramatically that you’re able to capture … not only the critical parts of [a game], but also the supreme athleticism of some of these players,” Gaudelli said.

“We’re all deploying this camera to follow the football, and viewers love it. Now it’s even going to get better.”

— Bill King

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